By JANE PERLEZ
Over the years, Beijing has sent military assistance to Pakistan, provided crucial help in initiating Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and cooperated closely on intelligence. Sturdy Chinese-Pakistan relations are seen as a hedge against India, a rival to both nations. In recent months Pakistani officials have gone to Beijing seeking Chinese investment in a naval base and weapons, as well as trade deals worth millions of dollars.
But on closer examination, Pakistan’s ability to use China to offset its collapsing relations with the United States may be far more limited than it appears, raising the prospect that Pakistan will be left on the world’s periphery once the Americans wind down the war in Afghanistan and vastly reduce their presence in the region.
A rising China with global ambitions is unlikely to supplant the United States in Pakistan, according to Chinese experts on Pakistan, as well as Pakistani and American officials. And while Pakistan’s latest flirtations with Beijing have been received cordially, Pakistani officials have walked away from their junkets with far less in hand than they might have hoped.
As Pakistan’s economy continues to decline, and the nation is beset by terrorist attacks, some Pakistanis are asking whether China will prove so helpful after all.
“We as a country may not figure as prominently in China’s scheme of things as we believe we do,” said an editorial on Sunday in The News, a leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan. “Islamabad may be valuable for Beijing in strategic terms, and that leads us to the military and civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries, but is Pakistan important for China in economic and political terms as well?”
Perhaps not. The two countries do indeed share a strategic interest in containing India, and China appears to do little to discourage Pakistan’s expensive nuclear and conventional arms race with New Delhi. As such the Chinese military continues to play a major production role in developing Pakistan’s weapons for the army, air force and navy, said retired Gen. Talat Masood, a former secretary of Defense Production.
But China’s core interests lie elsewhere — in its competition with the United States and in East Asia, experts say. China has shown little interest in propping up the troubled Pakistani economy, consistently passing up opportunities to do so.
The Chinese have built infrastructure projects in Pakistan — notably a commercial port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea — but have pulled back on some as they have come under the threat of terrorism, and where Chinese workers have been killed. Last month a large Chinese coal mining company, China Kingho Group, canceled a $19 billion contract in Sindh Province, citing concerns about security, in particular employees’ safety.
And like the United States, China, too, worries about Pakistan’s inability to curb terrorism, though China’s focus is almost singularly on the ethnic Uighur separatists who operate out of Pakistan and seek to destabilize the neighboring, energy-rich region of Xinjiang. In August, local authorities in Xinjiang charged that the leader of a Uighur separatist group, held responsible for terrorist attacks that left more than 20 dead in the city of Kashgar, had been trained in Pakistan.
The Chinese rebuke, repeated in the China Daily newspaper, was unusually blunt. The head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, in Beijing at the time, returned to deliver reassurances. The Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, a frequent visitor to China in search of business deals, made amends by visiting Xinjiang, pledging to contain terrorism.
On China’s western flank with Pakistan, Xinjiang was once dominated by ethnic Uighurs, but now ethnic Han make up more than half the population. The region is particularly sensitive because it covers one-sixth of China’s land mass, and the Chinese leadership, which has encouraged the Han migration, has announced plans for widespread development there.
“It’s very important for China for Pakistan to be stable,” said Du Bing, assistant professor at the Institute of Asian and African Studies in Beijing. “Because if it’s not stable we can’t keep the peace in Xinjiang.”
Among the demands almost certainly made to General Pasha during his visits to Beijing were a need for the Pakistanis to ensure that Uighur extremist leaders did not rise in the ranks of Al Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death, two Chinese experts on Pakistan said, requesting anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
The Pakistani Army, aware of China’s alarm, has been on the lookout for Uighur extremists in the past decade, killing an important leader in 2003 and providing information that led to the death of his successor in an American drone attack in 2010.
Even so, the stern Chinese reaction to the attacks in Xinjiang was a warning for Pakistan, said Mushahid Hussain, the chairman of the Pakistan China Institute in Islamabad. “The primary onus is on Pakistani policy makers, both in mufti and khaki, to take the fallout of Kashgar seriously, for its recurrence can be detrimental to our bilateral bond,” Mr. Hussain wrote in a widely distributed article.
Amid the anti-American rage in Pakistan after the killing of Bin Laden in May, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani flew to China in what was portrayed in the Pakistani news media as a major snub to the United States.
But Mr. Gilani, at least publicly, was unable to coax much out of the Chinese. Trade between the two countries remains anemic — nearly $9 billion, with Pakistan’s share only $1 billion. China’s trade with India exploded from $2.9 billion in 2000 to $61 billion last year.
During the visit, the defense minister, Ahmad Mukhtar, asked China to build a naval base at Gwadar, the port on the Arabian Sea where China completed commercial facilities in 2008.
The request was met with silence. For the moment, China does not see Gwadar as being of much strategic value, several Chinese experts on Pakistan said.
Since its completion, the port has become a rusting hulk, a destination to nowhere. The cost of building the roads and railway that would connect Gwadar with China, across the perilous territory of Baluchistan and up the mountainous terrain of northern Pakistan, was deemed too high, they said.
But on projects of immediate strategic importance to China, Beijing is moving ahead.
The construction in Punjab Province of two new nuclear reactors, known as Chashma III and Chashma IV, were announced by China in early 2010.
China approved the reactors after the George W. Bush administration, as part of its strategy to strengthen India as a bulwark against China, devised a civilian nuclear dealthat gave India access to nuclear reactors, fuel and technology on the world market.
Neither Pakistan nor China made any secret of the fact that the new Chinese reactors were a tit-for-tat against the United States-India nuclear alliance, yet another pointer to the notion that, for the moment, China will use Pakistan for a modicum of strategic interests, but not much beyond.